James Harden’s combination of handles, strength, shooting and court vision has made him a player that has singlehandedly carried Houston's uninspired offense from the very moment he was traded by the Thunder in 2012. But Harden's game can be unbecoming to those who prefer the pace-and-space stylistic shift that has become so popular in the NBA.
Unfortunately, perception can trump results, and much of Harden's perception (on both offense and defense) is negative. Harden's offensive repertoire deals in subtleties and analytics, leaving casual viewers with the impression of a chucker who drives to the rim intending to draw fouls. His basic efficiency stats seem underwhelming without context (44% from the field and 36% from three), which gives the impression of an overrated volume shooter at first glance. Baiting fouls to get to the line is a tactic he abuses, a tactic that quickly becomes incredibly annoying, and a tactic that distracts the casual viewer from noticing the finer parts of Harden's offensive skillset. It's also a tactic that works, nearly guaranteeing efficient scoring even when his shot isn't falling. The nuances of the one-on-one meta game that Harden has mastered are exceedingly difficult to pin down for many fans, and the genius of his passing can be subtle - all of which allow the snarky hate train to gain even more momentum.
Those who find Harden's offensive game tedious will generally acknowledge his offensive talent to some degree - it's hard not to. The natural counterpoint, however, is the other side of the floor, where Harden has been (somewhat rightfully) the prime example of social media shaming. Harden's defense has become so ingrained in the basketball zeitgeist that a fairly standard defensive error will be viewed and shared en masse on Vine and Twitter within minutes. No other star is put under a microscope of this caliber on the defensive end; similar to his underrated offensive skillset, outside factors create a common impression that may not entirely align with reality.
Harden's basketball ability is clouded by public perception more than any other player in the league. His offensive capabilities have already been covered ad nauseum, but his defense is usually just described as "bad". Yet defense is much more complicated than offense - a team of good defensive players can result in a bad defense if the coaching doesn't play to their strengths, and a good defensive player making the correct decision can look bad if his teammate misses a rotation. A good defense is a function of more than just players - coaching, effort, execution, chemistry, and personnel are all cogs that function to support a strong defense, and removing just one can derail what otherwise would be a very good defensive unit.
With that in mind, let's ignore the narratives and take a good look at the defense of both the Rockets and Harden in order to provide context and truly nail down Harden's characteristics on the defensive end of the floor.
Since the average defensive possession is much more of a team-oriented exercise than the average offensive possession, it is important to frame the Rockets on a macro scale before we focus in on Harden specifically.
After the 14-15 season in which the Rockets were the 2nd seed in the West with Harden finishing 2nd in MVP voting (after having had a fairly solid year defenisvely), the Rockets made a fascinatingly terrible drop off, mainly because of their defense. They dropped from 8th to 22nd over the course of just one season despite trotting out a nearly identical roster from top to bottom. There were internal issues for Houston from the start; with expectations high coming off an appearance in the Western Conference Finals, management acted quickly when the Rockets fell on their collective face right out the gate. Kevin McHale was fired after starting 4-7, with assistant J.B. Bickerstaff taking on the role of interim head coach. This was Bickerstaff's first shot at a head coaching gig, and the inexperience showed (more on that in a bit), but it was clear that Houston's biggest issue remained a mind-numbing lack of effort.
The effort issue was particularly glaring when it came to transition defense. Houston's transition defense as a team was so unbelievably bad that it often defied logic. Much has been made about this aspect of the Rockets' defense, and it is well deserved - Houston ranked 26th in the league in Nylon Calculus' runout percentage, giving up uncontested layups with less than 17 seconds left on the shot clock after a steal or defensive rebound 5.1% of the time.
A quick look at the tape shows exactly why - Houston played undisciplined and lazy defense in transition, a deadly combination. Watch Corey Brewer on this play - he starts off behind the three point line, but inexplicably moves towards Portland's basket even though Portland had already secured the rebound. McCollum, who was next to Brewer as the free throw attempt went up, gets an easy leak out as a direct result of Brewer's blunder. The rest of Houston's defenders converge on McCollum, and he misses a fairly easy layup, but the frantic attempts to contest his shot leave Harkless with an uncontested tip in.
This kind of decision-making was fairly common for the Rockets. It wasn't limited to Harden, and it certainly wasn't limited to defending in transition; many defensive errors were unforced, and many defensive errors featured decisions that defy explanation. Yet the effort from the players still wasn't the only issue - from top to bottom, Houston was defunct.
As alluded to earlier, Houston also had issues with coaching - the players were rarely put into a position to succeed. Good coaching will build around their players strengths - for example, Charlotte's Steve Clifford managed to field a top-5 defense a couple years back despite starting Al Jefferson, a notably bad defensive player, by installing a conservative scheme that asked big men drop back, essentially conceding the midrange in order to protect the rim. It worked so well that one might have assumed that Al Jefferson was actually a good defender. Take that concept and reverse it - now you have Harden and the 15-16 Rockets.
Houston's coaching staff did not match scheme with personnel, using the less-mobile Dwight Howard and Donatas Montiejunas in the same way they used the relatively agile Clint Capella. They schemed in illogical ways - Houston sometimes chose to trap sideline pick and rolls, a high-risk high-reward strategy that was popularized by the big three Miami Heat. Trapping ball handlers is uncommon in the regular season, with a few exceptions, because it requires specific skillsets from all five players on the floor - mobility, very high levels of effort, and extreme discipline. Houston did not have a single five-man lineup that truly fit that criteria, considering how the players were executing on defense for most of the season. And that wasn't the only time they did something like that, either.
To top it off, defensive communication from the entire team was subpar - blown switches, missed rotations, and general defensive incompetencies were standard fare in Rockets games. Make no mistake - the players deserve more blame for this mess than the coaches. But both played a part. In effect, the coaches that were supposed to help Harden and the Rockets look better than they were actually made them look worse than they were. Under a more logical and consistent defensive scheme, with better defensive communication and understanding, Harden may have performed better even if he had played the exact same way.
This is not to say that Harden was blameless - Harden was a terrible defender last season, and just about every credible defensive metric reflects that fact. He regularly neglected defensive fundamentals and put in very little effort overall. Interestingly, the most common Harden errors came when he was tasked with defending a player on the weak side, more than one pass away. Harden was actually better when he was actually directly involved in a play - not good, but better. When his man spaced the floor more than one pass away, Harden almost always roamed free, ignoring his assignment in favor of sneaking into the paint to fish for errant passes or position himself for rebounds.
While Harden has a very good feel for opposing passing lanes, his wandering will naturally cause defensive breakdowns fairly regularly. In fact, Harden does this so often that most of his roaming went unnoticed by opposing offenses. He can be clever about it at times, darting into the paint late in the shot clock when the ball is on the other end of the floor, but too often his man is left wide open for half a possession.
Harden does have good reason to be a bit more lazy on the defensive end than your average player, however - Harden played an absolutely absurd amount of minutes last season (just over 38 MPG, which led the league, in all 82 games). Overall, he played nearly 300 more minutes than Gordon Hayward, who was second in total minutes (that equals to about eight more games played for Harden than anyone else in the league). It's generally pretty difficult to run an offense and play as the primary scoring option while also putting in maximum effort defensively. This particular brand of laziness is unacceptable - Harden should be hidden to conserve energy, but he shouldn't be completely leaving his man as often as he did last season - but hiding Harden in and of itself should not be seen as a negative.
As is often the case with enigmatic players, however, Harden brings some things to the table that generally go unnoticed. Despite his struggles, Harden is a serviceable one-on-one defender when he isn't gambling for steals, with length, size, lateral quickness, and strength that allows him to defend like a smaller Harrison Barnes. Harden can defend many small ball 4's in a pinch, providing the switchability that coaches crave in perimeter players. Switching onto point guards can signal trouble, but late in the shot clock, he can hold up just enough to make switching 1-4 a palatable option in certain matchups. When he maintains defensive discipline, he can even be good. Watch this defensive possession where he stays with Klay Thompson, only getting knocked out of position when Steph Curry straight up pushes him. Harden even takes a second off defending Klay to help on Curry cutting towards the rim.
In the correct system, with a defensive anchor and logical defensive coaching, Harden can return to his previous status a passable defensive player - he could even turn into a good one. In fact, if you looked closely, you could see flashes of the 14-15 Rockets for stretches at a time - unfortunately, it usually only appeared when the Rockets were down 20 points in the first half, and it was usually too little, too late.
The Rockets went far beyond typical defensive struggles; despite above average personnel, they fell apart before they could even get started. Their team-wide issues were likely a result of internal strife, conflicting personalities, and a lack of leadership - a result of the type of monumental implosion that seems to happen to random teams every once in a while. Some may claim Harden is at fault for this. Others will blame the coaching staff. Still others will blame Dwight Howard. Without being in the locker room, it is impossible to know for sure.
What we do know is this - the Rockets, as a team, gave up last season. Notable defensive players like Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard had their worst collective seasons in years. The coaching did not help, the front office did not help, and the players did not help. Simply put, everyone in the Houston Rockets organization had a terrible season when we step back and look at their issues as a whole.
Because of these issues with infrastructure, supporting cast, motivation and effort as an organization, Harden was made to look worse than he is (and likely will be in the future). Context is important in basketball. Harden has shown he can be a passable defender in the past; last season was an anomaly for him. He'll always wander off a bit, but doing so intelligently instead of haphazardly could pay dividends. If Harden finds the motivation he seemingly lost just over a year ago, don't be surprised to see a positive regression for Harden on the defensive end - and if that does happen, don't be surprised to see Harden's names in MVP talks once again.